Revisiting

I’ve been thinking about revisiting some discographies lately, mainly the ones of bands I used to listen to obsessively back in my youth. One of the inspirations for this was the reissue of REM’s Chronic Town EP a few weeks ago, their first release on the IRS label.

I’ve always been an early-era fan of the band up to and including 1988’s Green, and it’s been ages since I’ve listened to those first albums other than hearing the occasional single on the radio (usually “The One I Love” or “It’s the End of the World As We Know It”, but occasionally I’ll hear “Superman” as well). Me and my high school friends were big fans of the band and taped each other’s copies of their albums into our own collections. But I haven’t listened to Lifes Rich Pageant in ages, and I used to play that one a ton in my college years.

So how is this different from any other time I obsess over 80s alternative rock? Well, instead of slinking back into the memory banks to relive those times or attempting to work on the Walk in Silence book, this is just…for fun, just like before.

I think part of it is tied into what I was talking about in the previous post, in which I find myself so constantly wrapped up in New Releases every week that few songs are actually sticking in my head. Which leads to the question: how is it that these REM songs (and Smiths songs, and Love and Rockets songs, and so on) stick like Gorilla Glue where the new songs don’t?

I think it’s partly because I’m not allowing those new songs to anchor themselves in the first place. It’s like I’ve forgotten how to do that somehow. The focus has gone from the music to the procurement of it. Which of course feeds into my obsessive tendencies, but doesn’t really move me emotionally, does it?

I’ve been trying to figure out how to change that these last few months. How do I let these songs into my psyche when I’ve forgotten how to do that? What do they have to anchor to? Moments in time, memories in the making? So many of those songs are fleeting, great to listen to but never quite moving me emotionally. Produced too clean, given airplay to a station that smothers us with its constant repetition. Caught in a race with millions of other songs, all trying to enter my subconscious at the same time.

It’s time to revisit how I made them stick in the first place. Allowing the song to percolate and simmer for a while in my mind, to allow it to latch onto a moment in my life. Keeping myself from getting constantly distracted by yet another song that sneaks up behind it. Allow the song to become a part of my own personal and private world rather than chasing after several songs at once as they go by.

You see us as you want to see us…

…in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions.

Every time I hear some blowhard talk about how these children are too young to understand — be it gender, race, sexuality, or any other bugbear that scares the bejeezus out of conservatives these days — it always reminds me just how many movies out there have been made about those same children understanding just fine and it’s the closed-minded adults who aren’t listening or paying attention.

It makes me think of Over the Edge, that 1979 film with a super young Matt Dillon, about a small nowhere town where there’s nothing to do, the cops don’t trust the kids, and the parents refuse to understand why they’re acting the way they are.

It makes me think of Times Square, a 1980 film about two teenage runaways from opposite sides of NYC and how they’re both cast off, ignored and expected to conform.

It reminds me of Pump Up the Volume — a 1990 film with a whole lot of parallels to Over the Edge about, you guessed it, bored teens in a small town full of adults who won’t listen to them.

It reminds me of Permanent Record, a 1988 film about a teen’s suicide, his friends’ reactions, and the adults’ reticence about talking with them about it.

And of course, it reminds me of The Breakfast Club, the classic teen flick about kids figuring themselves out because the adults in charge are certainly doing a shit-ass job helping them.

They all have a similar theme: the kids might not be totally alright, but they’re trying as hard as they fucking can to make it through with minimal damage…all while dealing with Adults With The Best Of Intentions who obviously aren’t listening or paying attention.

I always think of those films (and soundtracks) when I see state leaders threatening to shut down any mention of the word ‘gay’, or passing laws essentially outlawing treatment for trans teens, or any other bullshit they’re on this week. It reminds me of being a teen and discovering nonconformity for the first time. It reminds me of not being able to truly be myself for fear of reprisal from adults or other teens.

And it reminds me of growing up as a teen, looking for answers but also knowing that the adults are going to give me what they think I need to hear, which might hurt more than help.

Deep Dive

I’ve been doing a deep dive into 80s music lately.

I’m shocked, SHOCKED! I hear you say, not bothering to hide your eyeroll. But this is different, honest! I mean, sure, I’ve been listening to some of my old mixtapes and radio tapes, primarily because of a few writing projects I’m working on, but instead of doing the usual dive into records that have a bit of a long history to them, I’m playing around with records I remember seeing in the bins back in the day that have kind of been forgotten.

Not the “forgotten” bands that were really one-hit-wonders, or “obscure” bands that actually get a lot of airplay on certain genre stations. (And on the other side of the spectrum, I’m not yet at the “outsider” musicians that are just a bit too weird and impenetrable for my current tastes. I’m getting there, though.) I’m talking about the ones that I distinctly remember hearing on college radio and seeing their videos on 120 Minutes.

I’m talking about bands like the Jean-Paul Sartre Experience…

…or Gaye Bykers On Acid…

…or Fetchin Bones…

The funny thing is that many of these bands were the ones where I could never find their records, or never got around to buying them for budgeting reasons, or that I didn’t want to chance it if I didn’t exactly like it. I’m coming across a lot of them and checking out their grainy ripped-from-videotape music videos on YouTube. A lot of them are bands where I’d said I’d check them out sooner or later because I’d been hyperfocused on other obsessions…and I’m now realizing that I’ve finally come to the “later” part of that equation.

Some of these bands have stood the test of time, or are definitely a time capsule of a specific style. Some of them have not aged well at all (there’s one comic-punk band I used to like, but now sound like those one-joke pastiches you’d hear on those “irreverent” (read: tasteless bro humor) Morning Drive radio shows). They’re the bands that haven’t had as much of the Old Wave Renaissance play on satellite radio, but they’re the bands music nerds like me will remember.

What am I getting out of this? Well, aside from expanding my soundtracks and playlists, they’re filling some much-neglected holes in my personal history of listening to college radio. And as I’d hoped and expected, they’re also bringing back some memories I’d long forgotten. They’re putting the music history (and my own history) in a much richer context, that 80s college radio wasn’t just about The Cure and Depeche Mode and Wire and REM, but about the smaller bands and scenes that popped up. The music from different parts of the country — or the globe — that had a small but sizeable fanbase of their own. The music that may have somehow made its way onto major labels, but for the most part felt right at home on the independents.

And let me tell you, I’ve been having a hell of a fun time with it all!

Keep Coming Back

I mentioned over at Welcome to Bridgetown that I find myself once again returning to the 80s (surprise surprise), via an old story I started my senior year in high school and attempted to revive numerous times over the ensuing decades. This is the story that went through so many different titles, versions and mutations that it has its own report binder here in the file department of Spare Oom.

And here I am, half-seriously coming back to it. Again.

I mean, this is the same story that also inspired my much more recent nonfic book idea that shares the name of this blog, Walk in Silence. The college rock era of the late 80s will always be near and dear to my heart for many reasons.

So why bring up this old story again, you ask? To answer that, I’d need to explain why it failed so many times in the past, and it’s called roman à clef. Each time I resurrected it, I made the mistake of wanting to write it as a self-insert piece of fiction, and therein lies the problem: my life back then wasn’t nearly as exciting as I often make it out to be. A lot of silliness and a lot of gloominess and everything in between, but not enough to make it an excitable read. So what’s different now? Well, thirty years on I’ve learned a thing or two about how to write fiction and realized roman à clef is not what was needed here. I knew what I wanted to write, but real life self-inserting wasn’t the way to go.

I’m not taking this project too seriously at the moment, as I’m already focusing on a few other things, but I’m letting myself devote an hour or two a day for it anyway, making notes and revisiting mixtapes and looking at discographies and chronologies. I’m also resurrecting a writing style I haven’t used since those same 80s days: using music to inspire and influence certain scenes, Michael Mann style. The difference here is that I’m not leaning heavy on memory here. I’m taking ideas from the songs I loved and expanding on what images and thoughts they inspire and evoke in me. Sure, there’ll be a few self-inserts in there — there always are in my books — but it won’t be as obvious this time out. And I’m making an expanded mixtape that’ll have both the obvious (say, “Under the Milky Way”) and the deep cut (such as the below Love Tractor song). That, of course, is the most fun part of this project so far.

I have no deadline for this particular story, but I am looking forward to spending more time on it if and when I can!

Early 80s MTV, post-punk and new wave

Gloria Vanderbit’s passing yesterday got me thinking about the classic Robert Hazard one-hit-wonder “Escalator of Life” that came out in 1982. It was one of those odd new-wavey hits that didn’t make a hell of a lot of sense lyrically (or in this case, took a metaphor and stretched it to its breaking point), but it was certainly one hell of a cool song at the time.

I often talk about the late 80s here at Walk in Silence, but I don’t think I give nearly enough love to the early 80s, which were just as influential to me as a kid. I listened to just as much radio and watched as much MTV then as I did later on, and my tastes were just as varied. I could be listening to the hard rock of WAAF in the morning as I got ready for school, but I could be listening to the classic rock of WAQY on the weekend, and watching the then-freeform stylings of early era MTV. I liked A Flock of Seagulls and Duran Duran and Pat Benatar just as much as I liked Led Zep, Eagles, and that little quirky southern band WAQY liked called REM.

As commercial as some of these stations and channels were, they weren’t averse to playing the occasional obscurity like The Stranglers’ “Golden Brown” or Yello’s “The Evening’s Young”. They’d sneak in gems like The Jam’s “Town Called Malice” or Bow Wow Wow’s “Baby Oh No”. They were quirky but had crossover potential.

I remember a lot of these obscurities — the ones you remember from the era that don’t show up on those Just Can’t Get Enough compilations or those 80s Retro internet stations — because my mixtape-making actually started around this time, in late 1982. I’d made quasi-mixtapes before then, of course..mainly dubbing songs off the radio and from MTV (holding our cassette recorder close to the tv speaker, of course), but they didn’t contain that many songs. It wasn’t until November 1982 that I’d gathered a handful of used blank tapes and went wild. This first collection lasted six tapes and contained everything from A Flock of Seagulls to Led Zeppelin to Donnie Iris to Chilliwack to Thomas Dolby. It’s quite a manic and haphazard mix, created over the length of maybe two or three months.

I also started cataloging my mixtapes around then, first on index cards I would stick to the tapes with rubber bands, then a few years later with a steno notebook. Most all of those early tapes are long gone, having either gotten broken or tangled, taped over by something more important, or just faded back into white noise. But I kept these catalogs — mainly because I was a packrat — and much, much later (in 2007 or so) I started recreating them digitally using copied mp3s.

It’s kind of wild to see these mixtape track lists so many decades later; on the one hand, I’m not at all surprised that I was that obsessed over pop and rock music by the time I was twelve. There was just so much more out there coming out, and I just wanted to hear all of it! Sure, I had my questionable selections, but we all did around then. We’d gone from AM radio to the commercial FM radio to early MTV within the span of maybe four or five years. Some of us were just going to ride that particular avalanche and have fun while it happened.

Vacation fly-by: 4AD origins

The above building with the green store front is 8 Hogarth Road, just down the block from where we’re staying in Earl’s Court.

For those curious, this was the original location of the Beggars Banquet record shop, and soon after housed the record label/distributor of the same name. In 1980, Ivo Watts-Russell started the 4AD label there on the second floor. They only stayed there for a few formative years, but those years included Matt Johnson/The The, Bauhaus, and Modern English.

Favorite Albums: Synchronicity

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I’ve been hearing a few Police songs on Sirius 1st Wave lately, and it got me thinking: I haven’t listened to their last album Synchronicity in a LONG time. It occurred to me that this was one of the early non-Beatles albums that I connected with from start to finish in the early 80s. [I’d say Rush’s Moving Pictures and Thomas Dolby’s The Golden Age of Wireless are two others from this era…I’d listened to full albums all the time, but very few of them contained a full album’s worth of tracks I completely loved.  That would change within a year or so.]

I remember Synchronicity coming out as there was an amazingly detailed push by the label, A&M, on MTV, including multiple versions of the album cover, as well as a four-minute long teaser that was played on the music channel:

Having become a somewhat passive fan of the band on the previous album (1981’s Ghost in the Machine and the many hits that got airplay on rock radio, I loved what I was hearing. And when it was released in June of 1983, one of my sisters bought it and I damn near wore it out playing it. I’d dubbed a copy of it for my own listening until I finally found a used vinyl copy a year or so later.

Of course everyone knows the lead-off single, “Every Breath You Take”, which still gets an amazing amount of airplay over thirty years later. I was more a fan of its b-side, “Murder By Numbers”, which was treated as a bonus track on the cassette and CD. I was also a fan of the second single, “Wrapped Around Your Finger”. It’s not often you hear a song that uses the phrase “trapped between the Scylla and Charibdys”. Nerdy stuff indeed.

But what I found myself really enjoying was the strange mix of album cuts, from the jazzy “Miss Gradenko”…

to the new wave weirdness of “Mother”…

…to the jittery opener “Synchronicity I”.

I was only twelve when it came out, but budding writer in me really liked the idea that the album was all about different kinds of philosophies, both religious and profane, and how often they were linked in one way or another. Sting’s uber-intellectual lyrics were tempered by some brilliant melodies that seemed to transcend anything they’d recorded before.

Of course, it was also their last album together before they broke up (acrimoniously due to clashing egos, of course), so they certainly went out with a bang. Each member went on to vastly different solo careers and though they’ve reconvened a few times for one reason or another, they’ve never released anything new since.

Out of all the Police albums I listen to, Synchronicity gets the most plays by far.  It’s the tightest, the wildest, and the most interesting in my opinion.  The others tend to have weak spots that lose my attention, but this one I’ll still listen to from start to finish.

 

WIS: Unexpected inspiration

The other day while reading Martin Aston’s book about the 4AD label, I came across a single sentence:

By 1985, American college radio had gathered momentum alongside the spurt in independent record labels, with the likes of [Clan of Xymox’s] “A Day” striking radio programmers as adventurous and commercial, and a modern, gleaming alternative to the guitar-centric homegrown scene spearheaded by bands such as REM, Sonic Youth and Hüsker Dü.

To be honest, I hadn’t been thinking of my Walk in Silence project lately, partly because I’d put it aside some time ago.  I didn’t trunk it, I just put it aside so I could focus on the Trilogy Edit and newer fiction.  I’d also gone through my projected timeline last summer on a personal level, if only to purge it from my writing brain for a while.

That personal version really wasn’t the original idea that I’d had.  I was thinking more along the lines of a chronological book about college rock.  The releases bracketing the story would be The Smiths’ third single, “What Difference Does It Make” (January 1984) and Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine (October 1989).

I could never quite figure out a way to solidify my idea that that was the golden era of college rock, before it became much more mainstream in 1991 with Nirvana and everyone else.  Until that one sentence.  It made sense to me, though…1984-85 was about the time that a lot of independent distributors and labels in the US, such as Relativity and Caroline, started licensing British bands that had only been available on expensive imports.  [Only Sire had any sizeable share in that field as a major label, having signed the Smiths, Depeche Mode, and others.]

So it occurs to me that perhaps it’s time for me to resurrect the Walk in Silence project as it was originally intended, focusing on the sounds of college rock in the mid to late 80s.  Maybe without so much of the personal added to it this time out.

Of course, I already have a few writing projects on tap as it is, so I’ll have to figure out how the hell to fit this in.  Heh.

Retro: 1981

A while back I was visiting a music blog I enjoy but haven’t checked out in some time called Musicophilia.  Sometime in April they had an entry regarding an incredibly huge mix they’d built sometime last decade (and recently updated to twice its original size!), the entire collection containing post-punk songs from 1981.

That’s one hell of a fantastic mix, even by my standards.  I’ve been listening to it off and on, and the first thing that hits me is how similar a lot of this stuff is to the indie music out there now.  It’s pure college rock in a sense — the non-commercial stuff you’d hear on your favorite college radio station back in the day, even further afield than the Big Names we all know and remember now.  You may think of Depeche Mode and the Cure and The Replacements and so on, and those bands definitely have their own spot in this mix, but you’ll also see tracks from Crispy Ambulance, The Swimming Pool Qs, Pere Ubu, Flux of Pink Indians, and so on.  Bands you know of and most likely don’t have in your collection, but you remember that station playing those tracks late at night while doing your homework.

To be honest, it kind of makes me think that I’m not even close to doing justice to my own retrospective mixes or delving deep enough into the sounds of the past.  Who knows, maybe I’ll do one of my own versions of this megamix one of these days.

[I’m not sure if the mix is still available, but go ahead and follow Musicophilia anyway, they do post some great streaming mixes as well that’ll really open your ears to some deep cuts and forgotten gems.  [And I do mean forgotten — not the ‘oh yeah, that Cure single I used to hear all the time in 1992 and they’re now playing again for a brief time’.  I’m talking tunes I haven’t heard since maybe 1987 or so.]

Favorite Bands: Cocteau Twins

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If I had to pick any one band that influenced my bass and guitar styles the most, inspired numerous plot ideas and settings for my early writings, and always calmed my teenage soul late at night, it would definitely be Cocteau Twins.

I absolutely adored the layered, chiming and heavily echoed guitars of Robin Guthrie, the dual-tone melodies of bassist Simon Raymonde (and even the dissonant meanderings of original bassist Will Heggie, who went on to be part of the band Lowlife), and the otherworldly vocalizations of Elizabeth Fraser.

They were My Bloody Valentine at a much lower volume.  They were Felt with a hell of a lot more ambience.  They were goth without the pretension and imagery.  And they were one of the biggest anchors of the classic 80s sound of the 4AD record label.  When all the music critics described their sound as pastoral, autumnal or dreamlike, they really weren’t trying to be over the top.  They really did sound like the Scottish Highlands on a cool and foggy morning, or a late October in foliage-laden New England.

If you haven’t given them a close listen, especially their dreamier 80s output, I highly suggest it.  It’s quite lovely.